Friday, March 29, 2013

Feature Film Friday

If you missed the American Masters episode on Margaret Mitchell yesterday, you can still tune in to PBS tonight to catch the one on Phillip Roth. Thanks to Tucker for the tip.

And speaking of things literary on television and in cinema, there’s a ton of free stuff out there that I’m going to start sharing over the next few weeks (-thus the title of this post.)

Did you know, for example, that some film-makers believe in a “curse of Quixote” that will undermine any efforts to adapt the novel on the silver screen? It’s a long enough book to discourage even the most ambitious directors, but it’s also a project that’s gotten the best of a couple who have tried: Orson Wells, for one, spent 20 unfruitful years on the quest, and Terry Gilliam flamed out some years later. This documentary chronicles the woes that beset Gilliam almost from the outset of his ill-fated efforts. The good stuff starts about 40 minutes in, when his first shooting location is harried by F16s and swept away in a flash flood. Enjoy:

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Author Look-Alikes Vol. 12: Authors with Initials Edition

V.S Naipaul is a celebrated Trinidadian Indian, but those big jowls and heavy eyelids remind me a bit of old Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), a fictional American Indian. "Tatonka."

Here’s beloved chilldren’s author A.A. Milne and Ralph Fiennes. One gave us Winnie the Pooh, the other gave us Lord Voldemort.

With his low-set, bushy eyebrows and big ears, J.R.R. Tolkien isn’t a bad match for the Lloyd Bridges of “Hot Shots Part Deux” vintage.

And J.P. Donleavy’s earnest gaze seems to say, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” doesn’t it? Dead ringer for Alec Guiness.

It took me a long time to think of who T.S. Eliot reminded me of, but take a look at this side-by-side and tell me you’re not concocting theories about Rowan Atkinson being his love child.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Nemesis, by Philip Roth

Philip Roth has been making headlines recently by refusing to publish anything new (he has officially retired from writing.) But I couldn’t really add my voice  to the chorus of voices that are reacting to that news, because I’d never really read the man. That is, until I picked up Nemesis   a couple of weeks ago. So, what is my impression of Roth?

In truth, I don’t feel like my having read his 31st and final novel gives me too much insight into this perennial Nobel contender. Roth’s got more prestigious awards than you can shake a stick at, and the only award Nemesis  was shortlisted for was the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, which happens to celebrate medicine in literature (the book concerns a war-time Polio epidemic.)

But I was wholly drawn into this story of a young playground director who finds himself battling the scourge of polio at home, while his best friends fight on the front lines of World War II.  What with the baseball backdrop, the overhanging shadow of war, and a New York-area Jewish youth wrestling with religious themes, the book felt like a fitting companion to Chaim Potok’s The Chosen , a book I absolutely loved. (Mr. Cantor? Mr. Galanter? Eh? Eh?) But unlike The Chosen , which ends up affirming religious faith, Nemesis  is the account of faith lost.

The book’s title is never really explained, but since the story unravels like a classic Greek tragedy, we can only assume that “Nemesis” signifies the Greek goddess of vengeful retribution, come in the form of the Polio virus. I’ve spoiled enough of the story as it is, but I’ll just say that Roth breathed enough life  into the time period and setting to make me want to check out some of his other work. You should, too.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Paris, by Time Machine

I just finished reading The Paris Wife  by Paula McLain, and not long before that, I tackled Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London , so I’ve had early 20th century Paris on my mind lately (though that’s not rare around here.) Here is an interesting photo project comparing the Paris of our day with the Paris that would have been known by the famous  writers of the Lost Generation.

My first visit to Paris was as charming as I’d ever hoped it would be, but looking at these ‘before-and-after’s at Rue89, one can’t help but see that it’s lost just a little of its magic:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Striking it poor with great fiction

There’s been lots of talk about shrinking author advances lately, with the once-common $10,000 advances for mid-list writers being replaced by sums that are half, or even a fourth of that amount. Author royalties above and beyond the advance can still add up, but trickling in as they do twice a year for a pretty limited period before bookstores return the unsold copies to be pulped by the publisher, they’re hardly a sure-fire way to get rich quick.

But you’re not alone, discouraged writer. One of the most-heralded debut short story collections of the last century, Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time , was given an advance of only $200 in 1925. In today’s money, that comes to just under $2,600. And the print run? A whopping 1,335 copies. If He was lucky enough to get, say 25% in royalties (most would kill for that today), and every book sold, he was looking at another $8,600 in today’s money. (The book was priced at $2.00 a copy)

No wonder he had to keep slaving away as a foreign correspondent while penning his fiction.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Conan the Literarian

I’ve "Quixoted" you to death this week, so today, a “did you know” celebrity fun-fact for a change of pace.

Fact #1: Conan O’Brien is in Atlanta shooting sketches for a series of Atlanta-based shows to be aired during Final Four week (The Final Four is in Atlanta this year).
Fact #2: The company I work for sponsors Conan’s show, and by the fortuitous whim of some corporate sponsorship genius, he was scheduled to drop by for a townhall meeting Wednesday.
Fact #3: I was among the lucky attendees at said townhall (lightning fast email responses pay dividends)
Fact #4: Conan is hilarious. Some of you may not like that fact, but it’s true.
Fact#5, revealed at the townhall, also known as the Celebrity Fun-Fact: While at Harvard Mr. O’Brien authored a thesis titled “Literary Progeria in the Works of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.” Here are a couple excerpts:

“The American South has undergone such a period of self-examination in the early and mid-20th century known as the Southern Literary Renaissance. During the Renaissance, historians, fiction writers, and sociologists began to search for a sense of regional character by sorting through the stories, ideals, legalisms and codes of the Southern experience. The search invariably forced these intellectuals to decide which visions of the Old South to keep, which to abandon, and which to re-write. The answers have varied widely but the essential question has remained the same: How should the South's notion of what it was determine its new identity? The purpose of this thesis is not to find the answer but to examine the power and prevalence of the question.

“W.J. Cash argues that the South is a child, indulging itself with comfortable myths of innocence, while C. Van Woodward maintains the South is a pre-maturely aged region, stripped of its childhood legends by a series of bitter, awakening defeats. Although they disagree, both men associate the South's old myths with the metaphor of childhood. This image seems appropriate because children need to forge a sense of self and they rely heavily on myths for spiritual sustenance. In their years of rapid growth children thirst for beliefs and ideals as a foundation for their newly-forming identity. I have found that several Southern Renaissance writers have articulated their regional sense of contradiction through what I have termed literary progeria. Progeria is an often fatal disease that strikes children and ages them pre-maturely. In the works of several Southern writers the child protagonist becomes "old" long before his time because he is tormented by the same anxiety over myth which troubles Cash and Woodward. In an effort to construct an identity the child is drawn to past myths and builds the foundation of his character on archaic beliefs. The result is that this child caries the vast experience of these myths as burden; he or she becomes an "old child" who tries unsuccessfully to reconcile his elderly identity with the modern world. I have found variations of the "old child" who tries unsuccessfully (sic) to reconcile his elderly identity with the modern world. I have found variations of the "old child" symbol in Katherine Anne Porter's _Pale Horse, Pale Rider _ as well as in Caron McCuller's _The Heart is a Lonely Hunter_ and _A Member of the Wedding_, but these authors do not explore the symbol extensively enough to establish its characteristics and thematic significance. Both William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor do develop the "old child" symbol extensively, however, and although they differ in their specific fictional concerns it is clear that the image emanates from similar regional instinct. Each author places the "old child" in the center of generational argument over the value of past myths and the child, unable to reconcile opposing views, represents experience and thus an anguished state of conflicting loyalties. The extreme generational attitudes towards myth resemble the same extremes Cash and Woodward delineate in their argument over the South's relation to the past. The myth Faulkner's children turn to is the myth of the Old South and his "old children" suffer from a spiritual progeria. O'Connor adds a second layer of significance to the symbol by incorporating the myth of Christian redemption and this increased complexity produces in her children both a spiritual _and_ a physical progeria which borders on the freakish.”

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mapping Don Quixote

I’m a bit of a map freak. I could look at maps all day long. And as you’ve probably noticed by now, placing the fiction I read into its real-world, geographical context is something I really. find. interesting.

But Don Quixote presents its readers with a real quandary. You can find a few modern maps that purport to track parts of the journey of Quixote and his squire, and you can find some travel pages that will tell you “These are the very windmills that inspired Cervantes’ classic,” but let’s be honest. This thing’s over four hundred years old. And even the few maps that were drawn in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries don’t generally agree on all the landmarks (here is a great resource to skim through.)

But of those maps that show the full view of all three “sallies,” or journeys, covered in the book, there are two that match up sort of closely. This one, published in the first edition of Don Quixote for the Royal Academy of Spain in 1780, shows the one-way journeys (or round-trip journeys that assume returns along the same paths). By the way, this one can be blown up huge if you click through on the image:

This second one, from 1798, shows a more meandering loop for each of the sallies, but generally covers the same ground:

But both maps are zoomed in pretty closely, so it’s hard to see exactly where in Spain the action is unfolding. So, for your viewing pleasure, here are the same two routes, superimposed on the Iberian Peninsula. Green marks the first sally. Red marks the second. And blue marks the third. Do with these what you will.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fan-Fiction Revisited

We’ve posted about “literary” fan fiction before- where fans take a classic book and continue or add to the story using their own ideas and imagination.

But every once in a while a classic tale  can serve as the launching pad for a work that becomes a classic in its own right. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea  jumps off the shoulders of Jane Eyre , J.M. Coetzee re-imagines Robinson Cruso  in his book Foe , while Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern Are Dead  fleshes out the lives (or imminent deaths) of two bit-characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet .

But these classics-begotten-by-classics generally reach back in time quite a ways. You don’t often see a serious author riff off of the work of a contemporary (And no, Fifty Shades  and Twilight  don’t count.) But it turns out Shakespeare, of all people, wasn’t above it.

The first English translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote  hit England’s shores in 1612. In it, you find the side-story of a ruined and ragged youth named Cardenio. A year later, in 1613, a play by the name of “The History of Cardenio,” attributed to Shakespeare, but now lost, made its London debut.

Blatant opportunism? Or flattering fan-fic?  Sadly, we’ll never know.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Number 2

Lest you think yesterday’s post was just an excuse to engage in a little literary bathroom humor, we are adding some additional color on the matter today (naturally!)

As our long-time readers already know, we don’t need an excuse to delve into sophomoric topics- we do that all the time. But many of you may not have realized that yesterday’s passage from Don Quixote touches on an important Spanish cultural tradition. Yes, we’re serious. See this article, for example.

Now, Sancho wasn’t crapping in a crèche like your typical Caganer, but there’s no denying the Spanish affinity for dropping a deuce into all sorts of situations- both profound and profane. This is a nation that celebrates the birth of Christ with a sewer snake and a people whose greatest insult is “I (obscenity) in the milk of the whore that bore you.” So, why shouldn’t their rope cutting aficion spread through its greatest literature?

Well, it should. And it does. We should embrace it.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Less Said the Better

A fantastic passage from the Quixote. In pitch darkness, DQ and Sancho are stopped in their tracks by some ominous sounds that they will later identify as fulling hammers. Sancho secretly hobbles his master's horse to keep him from investigating, and stands next to him holding the saddle, too afraid to move:

At this moment it seems that either because of the cold of the morning, which was approaching, or because Sancho had eaten something laxative for supper, or because it was in the natural order of things—which is the most credible—he felt the urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him, but his heart was so overwhelmed by fear that he did not dare to move a nail paring away from his master. But not doing what he desired to do was  not possible, either, and so what he did as a compromise was to free his right hand, which was clutching the back of the saddle, and with it, cunningly and without making a sound, he loosened the slip knot that was the only thing holding up his breeches, and when he did this they came down and settled around his ankles like leg irons. After this he lifted his shirt the best he could and stuck out both buttocks, which were not very small. Having done this—which he thought was all he had to do to escape that terrible difficulty and anguish—he was overcome by an even greater distress, which was that it seemed to him he could not relieve himself without making some noise and sound, and he began to clench his teeth and hunch his shoulders, holding his breath as much as he could, but despite all his efforts, he was so unfortunate that he finally made a little noise quite different from the one that had caused him so much fear. Don Quixote heard it and said: 
“What Sound is that, Sancho?” 
“I don’t know, Senor,” he responded. “It must be something new; adventures and misadventures never begin for no reason.” 
He tried his luck again, and things went so smoothly that with no more noise or disturbance than the last time, he found himself rid of the burden that had caused him so much grief. But since Don Quixote had a sense of smell as acute as his hearing, and Sancho was joined so closely to him, and the vapors rose up almost in a straight line, some unavoidably reached his nostrils, and as soon as they did he came to the assistance of his nostrils and squeezed them closed between, and in a somewhat nasal voice, he said: 
“It seems to me, Sancho, that you are very frightened.” 
“Yes, I am,” responded Sancho, “but what makes your grace see that now more than ever?” 
“Because you smell now more than ever, and not of amber,” responded Don Quixote. 
“That might be,” said Sancho, “but it’s not my fault, it’s your graces, for choosing the most ungodly times to put me through the strangest paces.” 
“Take three or four of them back, friend,” said Don Quixote without removing his fingers from his nose, “and from now on be more mindful of your person and of what you owe to mine; engaging in so much conversation with you has caused this lack of respect.” 
“I’ll wager,” replied Sancho, “that your grace thinks I’ve done something with my person I shouldn’t have.” 
“The less said the better, Sancho my friend,” responded Don Quixote. 
 -- from Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
“Done something with my person I shouldn’t have?” 
“Rid of the burden that had caused him so much grief?” 
“The urge and desire to do what no one else could do for him”… 

There are some classic euphamisms in there. It would be interesting to compare the various translations.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Author Look-Alikes: Vol. 11

Young Peter Orlovsky looks like he could have lit “the world on FAH-EE-UH” years before the idea struck Fun’s lead vocalist (Nate Ruess.)

Playwright Tennessee Williams isn’t a bad match for Clark Gable, plus a few pounds and a receding hairline.

And how about Ivan Turgenev? Give the man a shave and a haircut and he could have played Mr. Matuschek or the Wizard of Oz as well as Frank Morgan.

Another writer-to-writer doppelganger: I give you a young Thomas Mann and Australia’s only Nobel Laureate, Patrick White.

And for the fans of Mad Men (and tortoiseshell specs), here’s Truman Capote and Lane Pryce (Jared Harris). 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

The Return of an American Classic

No, we’re not talking about the return of the Twinkie, though that’s great news, too. We’re talking about Literary Death Match, the series of bookish bloodsport title bouts that we began hosting last year to great acclaim and not a little controversy (see here, here & here.)

We haven’t been able to say why we halted the matches until now, but we’re proud to announce  this morning that a Federal Judge has thrown out the case brought by the North American Broadcasters Association on behalf of our intrepid ringside reporter, Kelly Wallace. Kelly was never a party to these vexatious proceedings, and she joins me and the rest of our production staff in celebrating this welcome victory.

Our first match will pick up where we left off, with dramatic works by Fitzgerald and Hemingway duking it out for Best Play by a Lost Generation Novelist. Look for it sometime in the next few weeks. Tickets will go fast!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Haiku-ption #13

It’s been too long. My haiku is below. Throw your own in the comments!

Single-filed menace
Flannel hazmat suits of white
On relentless march

Monday, March 11, 2013

Another Month in the Can

Time to heave another month into the Shelf Actualization archives. Above are the authors we covered this month, and below are the five most popular posts from the last 30-ish days:

And, as always, the suspicious search terms that brought many of you here:

Thanks for coming by. Hope you keep coming back!

Friday, March 8, 2013

Review: Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell

I read and loved Nineteen Eighty-Four , and there’s no denying the lasting influence it has had on our culture. (A-hem!)  I’ve also read Animal Farm , and came away convinced that it, too, was an “important” book to have in one’s arsenal of cultural touchpoints. But man, I don’t know that I enjoyed either one of them as much as I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London , Orwell’s very first book. DaOiPaL is a hilarious, instructive and captivating read.

It’s a non fiction account of the days Orwell nearly starved as homeless vagabond in London, and as a lowly dishwasher in Paris’s seedy underbelly, and even though there’s some controversy over how faithfully it records his actual personal history, it’s a book that had me laughing out loud and cringing with disgust pretty regularly.

You can get a lot out of this book. There’s the “back-of-the-house” exposé of the luxurious Hotel “X” (later identified by his wife as the famous Hotel Crillon) where Orwell goes all Upton Sinclair on the filthy working conditions in Fancy French restaurants- a section that may just have you dry-heaving by the time you’re through. There’s his political commentary and ideas on how to improve England’s convoluted ‘Casual Workhouse’ laws, which kept men constantly on the move and of no real use to anyone. But if I recommend it for one reason, it’s for the vivid descriptions of the various characters he meets along the way: Boris, the former Russian military officer he’s attached to in Paris, Paddy the tramp he befriends while exploring London’s underworld, but also the landlords, pawn brokers, scheisters and criminals that add color to the narrative.

Check it out:

Thursday, March 7, 2013

If you love words, set them free

It can be sad sometimes to see a perfectly good word end up helplessly trapped in a prison of cliched usages. Don’t know what I’m talking about? How about a few examples? Think of the things that you’ve recently heard described as scathing . Were they rebukes or criticisms? I’ll bet they were. And what about utmost ? Have you come across anything utmost  that wasn’t sincerity or respect? I doubt it. And I think we can agree that few things are as ardent  as supporters, or as insurmountable  as odds.

Gall and disaster have something in common: they are about the only things that are quite frequently unmitigated - just as false and obvious are all-too-often patently  so. And is anything as reckless  as abandon? Perhaps endangerment, maybe driving… but mostly abandon. Disregard comes in a number of forms, but none so common as blatant  . On the other hand, nothing is nearly so rapier  as wit. Intuition tells us that a tongue could be rapier, and that wits could be sharp, but no, it’s sharp tongues and rapier wits until the cows come home. And don’t let yourself be guilty of switching them around.

Speaking of guilt, do we assuage  anything quite so much? We might appease, alleviate or mollify lots of things, but guilt is about the only thing we really assuage  with any regularity. We condone a lot of things, but so often we do so tacitly . We also come to tacit  agreements, but I can’t think of many other places where tacitness comes to the fore (I didn’t even know tacitness  was a word before I looked it up for this sentence.) We never jockey  for anything but position. Aspersions are only ever cast. Things are never engulfed  in anything but flames. Intrinisic  value. Abject  failure. Unqualified  success. Thinly veiled . I could go on and on. We don’t pique  many things besides interest or curiosity, and I can’t imagine whetting  anything but an appetite, can you? Ah, except maybe a metaphorical whistle, that is. But one thing's for sure: the only thing I ever extol  are virtues.

I’m afraid words like these are, if you’ll allow me one more cliched pairing to drive the point home, inextricably  linked. (Ah, the ‘meta’ cliched coupling if there ever was one!) But like most inextricable links (they all are these days, aren’t they?) these pairings are probably just easy and strong, and not actually bonds from which their constituent parts cannot be extricated.

So I say extricate them. We should grant these words a life outside the cliches. If you love words, set them free.

And here's 80's Sting for a few words on the subject:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The many-tentacled influence of Miss Eudora Welty

We’ve covered Eudora Welty’s influence on a Grammy-winning album here. But she may also have inspired the titles of a couple of famous plays, as well.

Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” premiered in early 1949, thirteen years after Welty’s short story “Death of a Traveling Salesman,” a story whose main character is named Bowman.   Bowman? Loman? Coincidence?... Yeah, probably. But still, both have to do with man’s search for meaning and worth and accomplishment in life, and both characters come up empty in their search and then die. So I’m going to go ahead and say: DUN, DUN, DUN!)

But what about Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which premiered at the end of 1947? The title makes an allegory of the streetcar label that marked the line serving Desire Street in New Orleans. Did he come upon the idea on his own? Mmmm probably, but take a look at this excerpt from Eudora Welty’s novel from two years earlier, Delta Wedding :
“They had fooled everybody successfully about their honeymoon, because instead of going to the Peabody in Memphis they had gone to the St. Charles in New Orleans. Walking through the two afternoons down streets narrow as hallways, they had to press back against the curb, against uncertain dark-green doors, to let the streetcars get through. The streetcars made an extraordinary clangor at such close quarters, as they did in the quiet of the night, and some of them had “Desire” across the top. Could that have been the name of a street? She had not asked then; she did not much wonder now.”
I’m going to go ahead and give her credit for that one, too. Call it penance for this post.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Review: Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

If you read for plot, you might not get much out of Delta Wedding .

The story follows the Fairchild family as they gather and make preparations for the wedding of their second oldest daughter to the overseer of the family plantation- a suitor that all of them see as being beneath her. There is little real-time tension beyond the little recurring worries that certain preparations might not pan out in time  (will the Shepardess Crooks ordered specially from Memphis for the bridesmaids make it in time?! Inquiring minds want to know!).

Actually, the most interesting plot points are past events that continue to lurk just beneath the surface: the marriage of George, the family’s favorite uncle, to a lowly storekeeper (again, a marriage far below the Fairchilds’ vaunted station), the early death of an aunt and mother, and the movements of the family between their various estates. And at the center of it all is a near-tragedy on a picnic outing, where George stays in front of an oncoming train to help a mentally disabled cousin get her foot loose from the railroad tracks- an event that has resonance because that day cemented the romance of the young bride and the overseer, but also because it threatens to destroy George’s own marriage.

But these subplots only come to us in glimpses. The real reason to read this book is for the rich characterization, the complex tapestry of family relationships and the unforgettable sense of place- which almost stands in as one of the chief characters- (“The bayou had a warm breath, like a person.”)

Welty is undoubtedly a masterful writer. My only previous experience with her is the short story “Where is the Voice Coming From,” which recounts in first-person the tragic death of Medgar Evers, from the point of view of his racist murderer. It’s hard to believe the same woman wrote both pieces. I probably won’t be recommending Delta Wedding  to friends and family, and probably won’t re-read myself it any time soon, but I can already tell it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come. And maybe that’s the only mark of a great book that matters.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Everybody dies

I poked a little fun at Billy Shakespeare the other day, pointing out a rough similarity in body counts between King Lear  and the comedy/parody film “Hot Shots Part Deux.” And then I came across this infographic at Biblioklept, which only reinforces the point across some of his other tragedies. Enjoy:

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Quixote

ShelfActualization ‘blogger emeritus’ Tucker McCann and I will be embarking on a journey through one of the undisputed masterpieces of literature over the next few weeks. You are invited to join in the fun, of course.

Arguably the first modern novel, (and still the best, according to someDon Quixote  is a founding work of western literature and has influenced countless other books, from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary  to Dostoevsky’s The Idiot .  You can find shades of Cervantes’ Knight-Errant in characters as diverse as Melville’s Captain Ahab and Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland.

Now, I’m naturally daunted by any book as thick as my forearm, but I had a goal to tackle one of literature’s “big boys” this year, and it might as well be “the Quixote.” 

Any other takers?